Never come across New Year’s Eve referred to as Old Year’s Night. And the latter strikes me as somewhat of a downer (↓) compared with the more upbeat and cheery former. (↑)<2009 “I would prefer it if he were with his family on Old Year’s Night.”—Among the Mad by Jacqueline Winspear, page 233>
The above story takes place in London in 1931 and I figured that the phrase was just a common alternate British expression for New Year’s Eve. However, natives may know better, but I’ll just stumble around as follows:
OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY :
OLD YEAR: The year preceding the present one (usually so called when it has recently ended). In South African usage Old Year’s Day and Old Year’s Night are modelled on Afrikaans Oujaarsdag, Oujaarsnag, Oujaarsaand (compare Dutch oudejaarsdag, oudejaarsavond).
Compounds: attributive and in the genitive. Chiefly South Africa and Caribbean. Designating the last day (or night) of the old year, and the festivities to mark this; especially in Old Year’s Day, Old Year’s Night.
[[Note: Wikipedia lists Old Year’s Night as being in use in the Caribbean and Iceland.]]
THE HOGMANAY COMPANION: EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW AOUBT NEW YEAR’S EVE (2000) by Hugh Douglas [[Scottish author]]
New Year’s Eve – or Hogmanay as we call it – is Scotland’s own great festival. . . . Hogmanay is known by several different names. Because people went around guising for food, it was known as Cake Day, a name still alive in parts of Scotland and in north of England. . . Older folk sometimes call the last night of the year Old Year’s Night. [[Note: The word ‘Hogmanay’ is of ‘obscure origin.’]]
Tidbit: <2007 “In pagan times, the last evening of October was old-year's night, when disembodied ghouls and spirits staged a carnival, and bonfires were set on hilltops to scare them away.”—The Telegraph (London), 30 October>
So, since South Africa, the Caribbean, and Iceland are not likely sources for an expression used in 1931 London and environs, it seems that a reasonable guess is that Old Year’s Night came to England from Scotland. Incidentally, Jacqueline Winspear, author of my introductory quote, was born and raised in Kent (South East England). Also, since the above Hogmanay author says that older folks (circa 2000) in Scotland sometimes say Old Year’s Night, it seems likely that if the expression came to England from Scotland, it might also be an old-folks expression in the England today and in turn, possibly a current expression in 1931. For what it’s worth, a response on ask.com, said Old Year’s Night is a term in the Norfolk dialect.
In searching the Web and newspaper archives, all the examples I came across for Old Year’s Night were in reference to the celebration in Scotland, the Caribbean, and South Africa. So, the burning question is, has anyone ever seen or heard the expression being used in the England by a native speaker?
Ken G – July 30, 2013